Piloting the Ship

There is a little man who sits at a control panel just behind my eyes. He wears a helmet, because the going often gets rough. His panel is littered with knobs and dials and gauges, like a Jules Verne submarine or a ’50s era space rocket. He has a hard job, that little man.

When the rubber meets the road (or the trail), you rapidly lose control, even of those things you previously thought fell firmly within your bailiwick. It is easy to see that the exigencies of climate and topography lie beyond your purview. It is sometimes harder to admit that you don’t entirely run the show, even within the confines of your own skin.

I learned this most recently while running up Haystack Mountain in Southern Vermont. The steeply-pitched, loose-rocked trail runs 2.5 miles to the summit, from which one can see much of the valley behind Mount Snow, a popular local ski hill. I expected to hammer for half-an-hour, see the pretty view and then amble down at a brisk jog.

It is hard to run up hill over loose rock, so I was pretty well in the red the entire time, my breath ragged, my footing unsure, the little man at the control panel barely able to keep the ship going in the right direction (up) as I quickly lost control of things I formerly might have said were well in hand. The function of my quadriceps. My balance. My max heart rate.

This is the fertile land tilled by sports psychologists. How do you maintain control when all the gauges run into the red, when oil pressure drops, when the tires go flat?

When you are on someone’s wheel, catching your breath and plotting your next move, you are in the flow of things. You are managing your resources well enough to get strategic about what comes next. Sports psychologists specialize in helping you make those same sorts of decisions when you are decidedly NOT in the flow of things. They help you get the little man comfortable in his chair.

In my upward struggle, I found it necessary to shut down certain systems so as to shift resources to others. I stopped trying to see anything other than my next foot step. This is akin to, on a long steep climb, staring down at your slowly churning cranks or just off the front of your wobbling front wheel. It narrows your focus enough that you can bring in other types of sensory input. I have, on particularly brutal climbs, both on foot and on the bike, been able to move the workload from one muscle group to another in order to recuperate while still making forward progress.

Pedal with your ankles. Run with your hips.

Breathing is an autonomic function (i.e. your reptile brain does it for you most of the time), but as you approach your maximum heart rate (none of the equations I’ve seen accurately predict my threshold incidentally), your reptile brain stops regulating the breaths and moves into gasp-mode.

If the little man can do one thing for me it is to turn those gasps into regular gasps, so that my muscles are getting measured sips of oxygen rather than willy-nilly blasts that come few at a time and too far in between.

By narrowing my focus to the ground in front of my feet, shifting the workload from quads to hips and back again, and forcing my breath into something resembling a pattern I was able to crest the summit of Mount Haystack in 25 minutes, where I discovered that the top was completely fogged in.

This felt like a triumph anyway, not because I ran up a (small) mountain, but rather because I learned some ways to retain control during peak effort.

We all know those moments where what we’re doing scrambles our thoughts sufficiently that our performance breaks down. This is “blowing up” in the common parlance. As each of us pushes against our limits, this is the real challenge, to keep your head straight enough to be able to manage the strain.

You’re slipping off the back of a pace line, facing the 30 mile ride home alone. Your legs are screaming, or they’ve turned to wood. Sensory input is flooding the control room. It is hard to know what to do.

This is your final frontier. This is piloting the ship.

, ,


  1. James

    Reminds me of the sketch in the Woody Allen movie, “Everything You Want to Know About Sex But are Afraid to Ask” (or something to that effect). In it there were a number of “little men” controlling the “big man” during the course of a date. I’m not a big Woody Allen fan but that one sketch was hilarious!

  2. Hautacam

    When I’m so far into oxygen debt that my vision is graying out and I can only see down a tunnel through my left eye, I know that the little man is telling me I have got to focus on core systems, which in my case means inhaling deeply and slowly, and letting it out even slower through pursed lips.

    It is a totally counterintuitive response, ’cause I feel like I am about to pass out, but if I can manage that for about four breaths then I can get back on top of things and the little man can start chucking switches and turning the power back on again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *